What exactly are “fuel cells” and what can they power that will end or reduce our dependence

What exactly are “fuel cells” and what can they power that will end or reduce our dependence on oil and gasoline?—Alex Tibbetts, Seattle, WA

First developed as a power source for NASA’s Apollo missions, fuel cells convert hydrogen and oxygen into usable electricity, with heat and water as byproducts. While gasoline engines like those found under the hoods of today”s cars harness energy by burning fossil fuels, fuel cells derive power much more efficiently via chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen.

Fuel cell technology is extremely versatile, and can be used to run everything from laptop computers to power plants. Cities in the U.S., Europe and China currently operate public bus fleets powered by hydrogen fuel-cell engines. King County in Washington State is using fuel cells to power its new water treatment plant. And eight of the world”s top automakers are developing prototype cars and trucks powered by fuel cells.Ballard Power, United Technologies (UTC Fuel Cells), Plug Power and other companies are vying for dominance in the newly emerging global fuel-cell market. Meanwhile, governments and automakers are supporting the research and development with various investments, grants and subsidies. In 2002, President Bush launched the FreedomCAR program, a public-private partnership between the Department of Energy and the “Big Three” automakers, to fund development of fuel-cell technologies for American cars and trucks. A year later the White House announced the creation of the Hydrogen Fuels Initiative to offer support for a hydrogen-refueling network throughout the U.S. and beyond.

But environmental critics are suspicious of the Bush administration”s motives, especially since the Energy Department”s priorities lie with generating hydrogen from coal or nuclear power, rather than from sustainable sources like solar or wind power. Late last year, however, the U.S. and European Union agreed to work jointly on fuel-cell development initiatives, which has been interpreted as a positive sign.

The promise of a transportation sector powered by hydrogen fuel cells is appealing for economic and political reasons as well as for environmental ones. Besides the well-understood negative impacts of fossil fuel emissions on our air, water and health, experts are predicting that the peak of oil production will soon be reached, with remaining supplies largely in the volatile Middle East.

Despite their promise, though, fuel cells are not about to take over anytime soon. “Fuel-cell vehicles will not make a significant national impact for at least two decades,” says Jason Mark, director of theClean Vehicles Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. But Mark remains bullish on the future of fuel cells. “Given the pressing economic and environmental risks posed by automobile travel, we can”t afford to pass up the tremendous long-term potential of renewable hydrogen fuel cells.”

CONTACTS: Ballard Power, (604) 454-0900, www.ballard.com; UTC Fuel Cells, (866) 383-5325, ; Plug Power, (518) 782-7700, www.plugpower.com; FreedomCAR Program, (202) 586-9220, www.eere.energy.gov/vehiclesandfuels; Hydrogen Fuels Initiative, www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/02/20030206-2.html; Union of Concerned Scientists, (617) 547-5552, www.ucsusa.org.